Multitasking – just for the girls?

No doubt you’ll have heard that women are meant to be better at multitasking than men, but is this really true? In fact, it is difficult for anyone to do two things at the same time, especially if they involve the same parts of our brain. This is why it’s so dangerous to use your mobile at the same time as driving, and so hard to keep count in your head when someone else is talking to you!

Multitasking, or dual task performance as it is known in psychology, has been extensively studied as it can tell us some pretty useful things about the human brain. The hypothesis for the impact of dual tasking on performance is as follows: if two actions use separate areas of the brain, then they can be carried out together without them going too wrong, but if they use the same area, performance will be poor.

This relates to Baddeley’s (2000) famous model of working memory, shown in the image below:


This states that our working memory (i.e. short-term memory) is divided into 3 main parts: the phonological loop is involved with processing language, the visuo-spatial sketchpad with vision and mental imagery, and the episodic buffer which incorporates our personal memories.

A study by Treisman & Davies (1973) supports this theory – participants had to monitor 2 streams of information – either both auditory, both visual, or one of each, and respond to a target word (animal names). They found that participants performed best when they were monitoring one auditory, one visual stream, compared to 2 from the same modality.

Another interesting study which has shown that if different brain areas are used then performance is unharmed was carried out by Kinsbourne & Cook (1971). Participants had to balance a thin dowel on their left or right index finger, either whilst speaking or in silence. In the speaking condition, when the dowel was on the left hand, performance was okay. However, it suffered if the dowel was on the right hand, even though this was their preferred hand to use. This is because language is located in the left hemisphere, and the right hand is controlled by the left hemisphere too. Right-handed participants could balance the dowel on their right hand for 11 seconds longer in silence, than when they had to talk – have a go yourselves and see if you can do better!

There are some things that make dual tasking easier – so next time you need to multitask, try and remember these 5!

  1. Practice
  2. Separating resources
  3. Dissimilar tasks
  4. Unspeeded responses
  5. Being a supertasker

Unfortunately, number 5 is not something you can do much about – supertaskers are a small percentage of the population who seem to show no performance cost when carrying out 2 things at the same time! Watson & Strayer (2010) found 2.5% of participants performed equally well at single and dual driving tasks, and these weren’t just women!

Thank you for reading and don’t forget to check back next Thursday for a new post.

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